Over the last year or so hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has become a headline issue, and how one feels about it depends to a good degree on who one is. Generally though, as fracking garners more scrutiny the belief that it is worth doing hasn’t wavered much, a recent poll found.

Two-thirds of Americans (66%) in the poll said they believe the benefits of natural gas outweigh the risks of fracking while 17% said the risks outweigh the benefits, according to The Harris Poll, which queried 2,056 adults online during early February.

“Natural gas has maintained a relatively low price compared to other fuels with similar uses (like fuel oil and gasoline),” Harris said. “Additionally, it is considered a relatively clean source of energy. For Americans, these factors seem to outweigh the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, the extraction method most associated with gas.”

There are significant generational differences, however. “Echo boomers” (ages 18-35) are less likely to believe the benefits outweigh the risks than “matures” (those 67 and older) are (53% versus 84%). And people living in the East are less likely than those in the West to agree that the benefits outweigh the risks (60% versus 71%).

There is also a political difference when it comes to feelings on natural gas. Three out of four Republicans (74%) believe the benefits of gas outweigh the risks compared to just over three in five Democrats (62%) and more than two-thirds of Independents (69%) who believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. Looking at the reverse, the partisan differences are significant, with larger portions of Democrats (21%) and Independents (19%) believing that the risks outweigh the benefits than Republicans (10%).

“At the end of the day, what matters most to Americans is how much they are paying to heat their homes and fuel their lifestyles. This may explain why natural gas has maintained a positive position relative to its risks,” said Sarah Simmons, Harris senior research executive. “Natural gas is inexpensive, clean and accessible. Americans’ view of coal suffers, especially when we look at generational breaks due to environmental factors.”

In 2009 two in five Americans (42%) said the risks of using coal outweighed the benefits while 36% believed that the benefits outweighed the risks, according to Harris. In 2011 the view did not change all that much as 38% said benefits outweighed risks but 43% believed that the risks outweighed the benefits. This year, the number of people who said the benefits outweigh the risks continues to inch upward as 42% said that while 40% currently said the risks outweigh the benefits.

There are some clear regional and generational differences for coal. Almost half of those in the Midwest (49%) and South (48%) said the benefits outweigh the risks compared to 35% of those in the East and 33% of those in the West. There is also a clear age divide as baby boomers (ages 48-66) and matures are more likely to say benefits of coal outweigh the risks than both echo boomers and those from Generation X (ages 36-47); more than half of matures (54%) and 47% of baby boomers said the benefits of coal outweigh the risks compared to 39% of Generation X and 33% of echo boomers.

The question was presented to respondents as: “There are many sources of electric power used in the U.S. To the best of your knowledge, would you say the benefits of each source outweigh the risks or do you believe the risks outweigh the benefits?”

Respondents were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data were weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample was based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error were calculated.

Late last year a different poll — by the Muhlenberg Institute of Public Opinion and the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy — targeting just Pennsylvanians, whose state is in the heart of Marcellus Shale country, found acceptance of fracking with taxes and regulation (see Shale Daily, Nov. 22, 2011).